Picks and Pans Review: Mask

updated 03/18/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/18/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

We see him first through a window, his back to the camera. He is a trim, long-haired youth, about 15, with a collection of baseball cards and Springsteen posters on his wall. When he turns front, there is a temptation to laugh. The boy seems to be wearing a grotesque mask that elongates and enlarges his face. But this mask doesn't come off. Rocky Dennis was born with this disfiguring condition (the medical term for it is craniodiaphyseal dysplasia), which doctors had predicted would kill him years before he reached his teens. This movie, directed by Peter (The Last Picture Show) Bogdanovich, is based on a true story (page 40). What makes Mask so involving, besides Rocky's astonishing story, are two splendid star performances. After Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and her Oscar-nominated portrayal in Silkwood, Cher no longer has to prove to the world that she can act. But even her admirers may be astonished by the heat and bite she brings to the role of Rusty, a single mother whose dependence on drugs and too many wrong men never diminishes her fierce drive to get her son the medical attention, public school education, social acceptance and love he deserves. As Rocky, Eric (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) Stoltz is near miraculous. With only his eyes visible under Mike West-more's layers of foam-rubber makeup, Stoltz shows us a boy, normal in every way except for the calcium deposits that have disfigured his face, struggling to prove that there is deep emotional power behind the cliché: What matters is what's inside. Bogdanovich handles the anguishing mother-son relationship with disarming directness. A small scene in which Rocky shows his mother his face in a fun-house mirror (the distortion has served to regularize his features) is shattering. And Rocky's love for a blind summer camp counselor, beautifully played by Laura (Teachers) Dern, deftly avoids the icky-poo sentimentality it could have lapsed into. Sadly, other parts of the film sink into exactly that kind of maudlin trap. And Bogdanovich isn't as conscientious with some of the story's minor characters. The way stalwart Sam (Lifeguard) Elliot and the rest of the leathery, leering gang who befriend Rocky are portrayed seems more than a little contrived. Their idea of outlaw antics is racing their Harleys without helmets. These bikers also offer Rocky so much teary support they threaten to dry up audience emotions. Still, the impact of Rocky's story renders nit-picking meaningless. The smashing talents of Cher and Stoltz make Mask both an affecting tribute to Rocky and a movie to touch the heart and the conscience. Bring handkerchiefs. (PG-13)

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